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Obama’s Own Defense Secretary Hits His Iraq Policy

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Saagar Enjeti White House Correspondent

Former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Leon Panetta criticized the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw from Iraq in 2011 at a Hudson institute conference Monday.

Panetta emphasized that former President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw from the country left a “vacuum” open for Iran. The former secretary’s comments came during a question as to what future U.S. strategy in Iraq should look like after the defeat of the Islamic State.

Panetta referenced ongoing tensions between Iraqi Kurds and the federal government, and emphasized the need for the Trump administration to retain a U.S. presence in the country. Iraqi federal government forces have forcibly retaken disputed territory held by Kurdish forces in recent days after a Kurdish referendum for independence.

“If the Iraqis keep going after the Kurds we’ll have another civil war on our hands,” Panetta said.

Iranian militiamen have been active in the hostilities between the Iraqi government and the Kurds, leading experts to fear a new rise of sectarian strife in the country. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke out Sunday on the rise of Iranian influence in Iraq, saying “certainly, Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home.”

“The position of the Iraqi government and the position of our government is that there should be a single Iraqi security force answerable to the Iraqi state,” a U.S. official later told The Washington Post of the Trump administration’s view of future Iraq militias.

Panetta’s comments echo his long-standing criticism of his former boss’s foreign policy. “It was clear to me — and many others — that withdrawing all our forces would endanger the fragile stability” of Iraq, he wrote in his post-administration memoirs, adding that without Obama’s “active advocacy” to have U.S. troops remain in the country, a sustained U.S. presence was not obtained.

He also took a swipe at Obama’s decision not to strike Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad for the use of chemical weapons inside in Syria after drawing a “red line” on such an action. “When those attacks took place the failure to take action sent a message that we would not stand by our word … that had an impact with credibility with the United States and the world.”

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